We had seven nights to travel the route from Brisbane to Cairns. It’s not much time, but it’s enough to get a sense of the East Coast and explore the Barrier Reef.
Here is our itinerary based on a four hours drive between each stop, apart from Mission Beach to Cairns which is only one hour.
Road Trip Itinerary from Brisbane to Cairns:
Brisbane: One night stay.
Brisbane was our starting point where we picked up the car.
Hervey Bay: One night stay.
Harvey Bay is known for its access to Fraser Island. They offer one day or multiple days excursions but we didn’t have time to check it out. We had a coffee on the beach at Enzo’s and took a walk along Urangan Pier. It’s a long pier populated with fishermen and a few tourists walking back and forth. We saw a turtle swimming, which was cool to see.
If you want to see turtles, on the way to Rockhampton you can stop at Mon Repos, the place where turtles hatch. If you have time the hike takes two hours and sunset is your best chance to spot the turtles. We couldn’t do the hike but we visited the small museum, which is free.
Rockhampton: One night stay.
This town is not interesting at all, but you will have to stop there unless you want to drive more than five hours. We arrived at night and there was no one around, and only a few restaurants were open.
Airlie Beach: One night stay.
Airlie is a cute spot. There are many young people and cool restaurants. We had dinner at Mr. Bones and loved the food -- very fresh and tasty. The day after, we did a half day trip to Whitsunday Island. The boat takes you to Haven Beach and you get to hang out there for two hours. Haven Beach stretches for miles and it’s spectacular. The water goes from clear to dark touching 50 shades of blue, literally.
Townsville: One-night stay.
Not a very pretty town, but better than Rockhampton. We had dinner in a nice affordable Japanese restaurant: Sakana
Mission Beach: One night stay.
Mission Beach is a good place for snorkeling, it was recommended by a local that we met during the trip. When we arrived we went to South Mission Beach for a quick late afternoon swim. It was quiet, with just few people on the beach. The water is dark blue and it seemed cold, but we decided to swim anyway. Surprisingly, our bodies warmed up and we found ourselves immersed in a natural hot tub. The area where we swam was protected from jellyfish with a net making a safe spot for swimmers.
Later we enjoyed dinner at a restaurant on the beach: Sealevel... and took a walk to look at the stars. If you have never been in this part of the hemisphere, make sure you look for the South Cross. The day after we went snorkeling with Reef Express ($120 for 3 hours). We were ten people in total and the instructors were nice and told us many interesting things about the Reef and the animals that populate them. We stopped in different parts of the Reef, saw plenty of fish, a giant clam, and a lobster. It was incredible.
Cairns: One night stay
We just spent one night and arrived in the evening, with not much time to explore.
The road trip wasn’t a touristy experience, there weren’t many cars on the road and plenty of secluded places to discover. Don’t expect to drive next to the ocean all the time as the road mainly crosses inland and the landscape can get rather dull. Make sure you have good music and podcasts to entertain yourself.
NOTE: Wi-fi doesn’t work well in Australia and even if hotels offer it, it’s not useful. So don’t rely on it.